VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis said the Catholic Church must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and become more merciful or risk the collapse of its entire moral edifice "like a house of cards".
In a dramatically blunt interview with an Italian Jesuit journal, Francis said the Church had "locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" and should not be so prone to condemn.
Its priests should be more welcoming and not cold, dogmatic bureaucrats. The confessional, he said, "is not a torture chamber but the place in which the Lord's mercy motivates us to do better."
His comments were welcomed by liberal Catholics; but they are likely to be viewed with concern by conservatives who have already expressed concern over Francis's failure to address publicly the issues stressed by his predecessor, Benedict.
Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, the first from Latin America and the first Jesuit pope, did not hold out the prospect of any changes soon to such moral teachings.
But, in the 12,000-word interview with Civilta Cattolica, he said the Church must find a new balance between upholding rules and demonstrating mercy. "Otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards."
In the interview with the magazine's director, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, he also said he envisioned a greater role for women in the 1.2 billion member Church but suggested it would not include a change in the current ban on a female priesthood.
In a remarkable change from his predecessor Benedict, who said homosexuality was an intrinsic disorder, Francis said that when homosexuals told him they were always condemned by the Church and felt "socially wounded", he told them "the Church does not want to do this".
He re-stated his comments first made on a plane returning from a visit to Brazil in July that he was not in a position to judge homosexuals who are of good will and in search of God.
In the interview released on Thursday, he added: "Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free. It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."
The Church, he said, should see itself as "a field hospital after a battle" and try to heal the larger wounds of society and not be "obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."
Francis's approach contrasts starkly with that of his conservative predecessor Benedict, who stepped down in February and now lives a withdrawn life in the Vatican grounds.
The interview was not didactic and formal, in the way of past popes, but easygoing, familiar and friendly. He even spoke of his favourite author, Dostoevsky, painter, Caravaggio and composer, Mozart.
"What is clear is that he does not think like a classicist who sees the world in unchanging categories. He is a story- teller like Jesus, not a philosopher," said Father Tom Reese, an American Jesuit and author of several books on the Vatican.
John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group in the United States, said:
"This pope is rescuing the Church from those who think that condemning gay people and opposing contraception define what it means to be a real Catholic.
"It's a remarkable and refreshing change."
The interview took place over three sessions in August in his simple quarters in a Vatican guest house where he has lived since his election instead of the spacious papal apartments, and was released simultaneously by Jesuit journals around the world.
Francis alluded to criticism of him within the conservative Catholic establishment.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that," he said.
Just last week, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, spoke for many conservative Catholics when he said he was disappointed that the pope had not addressed "the evil of abortion" more directly to encourage anti-abortion activists.
"I think this is the real beginning of his pontificate," said Massimo Faggioli, theologian at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota. "The overall picture is a Church that is not imposing a test on people before they even think of staying or leaving."
The highest-ranking bishop in the United States said he found the interview another example of Francis reaching out to all people, "including those who feel that they have been wounded by the church."
"I particularly welcome his reminder that the clergy are primarily to serve as shepherds, to be with our people, to walk with them, to be pastors, not bureaucrats," Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement.
Reflecting on the role of women in the Church, Francis said:
"We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the Church.
"The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions."
The Church teaches that women cannot become priests because Jesus willingly chose only men as his apostles. Proponents of a female priesthood say he was only acting according to the norms of his times. (Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Eric Walsh)